The singer's shape-shifting latest celebrates the escapist world of the club, whirling through genres and name-checking floor-fillers that have ruled discotheques and warehouses for decades.
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A new Beyoncé album is an event. Whether it's surprise-dropped or announced weeks ahead of time, her releases shake up the pop world in seismic ways. Yet for all its axis-tilting powers, the singer and mogul's music is also highly personal, pulling listeners into the space she's inhabiting artistically and emotionally, and retracing her steps along both those paths.

Renaissance, Beyoncé's seventh solo studio album and first proper solo effort in six years, exemplifies this duality both in form and function. Over 16 generation-hopping tracks, the record celebrates the transportive nature of the club, whirling through genres and name-checking floor-fillers that have ruled discotheques, warehouses, and makeshift dance havens for decades. It also drops hints as to what might have led Beyoncé to find solace in those places, with dropped-mask lyrical asides about wanting love and feeling underestimated by others juxtaposed with braggadocio borrowed from the likes of bounce innovator Big Freedia and Atlanta MC Kilo Ali. 

The whole thing sounds great, its heady blend of styles (speaker-rattling Miami bass, roller-rink space-funk, harmony-rich gospel, dirty Detroit techno, and sun-dappled psychedelic soul, to name a few) fusing together in instinctive yet surprising ways. Some cuts contain multiple tempos and movements, feeling like mega-mixes of themselves. Standout "Pure/Honey" — a crash course in ball culture that samples the New Jersey DJ MikeQ, voguing pioneer Kevin Aviance, and late drag trailblazer Moi Renee — flounces and sashays before coalescing into a sparkling disco cut. 

Beyonce Renaissance album
Beyoncé
| Credit: Mason Poole for Parkwood Entertainment

Beyoncé has said she conceptualized and recorded Renaissance during the past two-plus years "to find escape during a scary time for the world… it allowed me to feel free and adventurous in a time when little else was moving." Setting a "pandemic album" in a nightclub milieu may seem odd at first, but it makes perfect sense when thinking about the ad hoc community we find on the dance floor; there, bodies rub up against each other to the same thumping beats, but each dancer's mind might be in a different place thanks to the highly personal way music hits the brain. 

For 62 minutes, Renaissance allows listeners, wherever or whoever they are, to immerse themselves in its seamless, shape-shifting songs. (Beyoncé didn't release videos for each track this time, a decision that implicitly nods to the closed-eyed nature of fully losing oneself in the groove.) Its heavy percussion entices us to release the tension — or, at times, to embrace it, like on the undulating "Cozy," a storming statement of self-empowerment in which Beyoncé declares she'll cut loose in front of the mirror and kiss her scars "because I love what they made." Reflections on daily strife and "oceans of tears we cried" dot the record, but they're soothed by its constant movement.

Since 2002's "Work It Out," her fractured-funk debut solo single from Austin Powers in Goldmember (in which she also starred), Bey has also been giving listeners lessons in Black music history refracted through the lens of the current pop landscape's demands. Renaissance opens not with her own voice but with a sample of the late Memphis hip-hop legend Princess Loko in full kicking-against-the-pricks mode, setting the table for Beyoncé to triumph over anyone who thinks they can obstruct her path. While only a few collaborators take top billing — the dancehall rapper-producer Beam, R&B and Afrobeats crooner Tems, and disco titan Grace JonesRenaissance flaunts an endless list of credits that includes longtime go-tos like The-Dream and the Neptunes, newer faces like future-funk singer-producer Syd and EDM kingpin Skrillex, and interpolations of work from artists like soul-rock dynamo Teena Marie and house-pop diva Robin S. 

The catalog of touchstones, samples, and cameos on Renaissance could double as a syllabus for a master class on the evolution of dance music as it has unfolded during Beyoncé's lifetime — and in this era of easily accessible YouTube clips and streaming discographies, it should. That the title of closer "Summer Renaissance" is both a reference to this heat-lightning album descending upon us in the middle of a summer that feels just a bit closer to normal and a salute to disco luminary Donna Summer (whose 1977 synth fantasia "I Feel Love" serves as the swaggering anthem's fulcrum) solidifies this notion in galvanizing fashion. It may be August, but school is in session. A

Renaissance is out now.

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